SOCIAL SCIENCES

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Random. Aug. 2020. 496p. ISBN 9780593230251. $32. SOC SCI
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While researching her best-selling The Warmth of Other Suns, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Wilkerson realized the importance of social order. In this outstanding work of social history, she explains how a rigid social order, or caste, is about power. Beginning with the first caste system in the United States, which started with slavery in 1619, Wilkerson details how caste would become the cornerstone of U.S. social, political, and economic policy, with whites being dominant, African Americans subordinate, and Native Americans conquered. She shows how immigrants walk into a preexisting hierarchy as they try to integrate into American culture, and how constructing one’s white racial identity often means defining oneself from its opposite: Black. Powerful chapters parallel three systems—slavery in the American South, the reign of Nazi Germany, and hierarchies in India—in order to explore how each relied on control, including dehumanization, endogamy, and purity via immigration laws. Wilkerson reminds us that, despite the passage of civil rights legislation, caste endures in infrastructures and institutions, and that the election of Barack Obama was the biggest departure from this system in U.S. history. Incidents of historical and contemporary violence against African Americans resonate throughout this incisive work.
VERDICT Similar to her previous book, the latest by Wilkerson is destined to become a classic, and is urgent, essential reading for all.

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